I Threw Away My Outline

Posted on February 5th 2018 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: News, Writing

I finally fixed Courting the Dragon’s plot problem.

I threw away the plot.

Alright, the main plot points are still the same. The blurb that’s already posted on this website is still wholly and perfectly valid. But I threw out that stupid outline that’s been suffocating me from day one.

Didn’t I just say that outlining is important for sequels like two or three blog posts ago? Yes, yes I did. And I stick by that statement. But that only works if you wrote a good outline in the first place. I’m here to tell you, this one was garbage.

If you follow me on Twitter you’re probably aware that I took a machete to my more-than-half-finished draft a while back and I’ve been building it back up. Most of what I axed at the time was related the to the villain I hated oh-so-much and the utterly failed attempt at using him as a pseudo love interest. That didn’t work out for all kinds of reasons, primarily because Penelope wasn’t having it (I don’t blame her) and I just couldn’t make the guy likable.

But that still left me with a heap of things I didn’t like, and a whole big section that feels like a Regency Romance novel that makes me want to beat my head against a wall. It isn’t anything against the genre. I’ve read quite a few that I enjoy (a bunch of things by Johanna Lindsey come to mind). The problem is that writing in that way made my female characters feel very vapid to me, and it’s really the antithesis of the personas I built for Penny and Tiffany in Saving the Dragon. I have no idea how other authors manage to write strong female characters in such a setting. More power to them, honestly. If you have any tips to leave in the comments I’m all ears.

So, for the time being, that section I’m unhappy with is still technically part of the draft. I expect it to bleed red in the first round of hard revisions. Like, big red X’s and all new scenes scribbled on the back and in the margins. There’s a plot point in there I somehow need to keep, and I have a few ideas about how to do it dancing in my head. BUT. That is a problem for future me. I’ve promised myself no more big cuts before the last line of the first(ish) draft has been written.

So, what did I do about the plot?

I went back to who my characters are. 

Penelope isn’t someone who waits around for someone else to come up with a solution. To quote her in one of her new scenes: “Have you ever known me to sit in a tower and wait for rescue?” And yet, I had her doing exactly that for a substantial part of the very early draft. Some of the things I had her doing were so appalling out of character that it made it impossible to do anything with her.

Don’t even get me started on what Salarath was up to. Let me just say, sulking is not a good look on him.

Getting reacquainted with my heroes put a few things in sharp perspective for me, and made doing a few more surgical removals (prior to the no-more-big-cuts-vow) a simple matter. I graphed on some new scenes to replace what I’d sliced away, and suddenly some things fell into place nicely, because Penny and her dragon were acting like themselves again. Whew.

From that point, I decided to take a road somewhere between the complete and utter pantsing that I did for Saving and the tightly constrained outline I initially did for Courting. My characters were at point A, but I knew they needed to get to B, C, and D before I could even think about writing the finale. So, I noted B, C, and D, and then just let the characters take me to them.

Do I have a few crap transition scenes that are totally going under the knife in first revisions later this month? Abso-frickin’-lutely.

Am I a thousand times happier than I was with this draft a month ago? You have no idea.

When I finished my first round of big tear-outs, I’d taken the draft down from over 50k to ~43k words. I’m now coming up on 70k again (probably more by the time this post actually goes live). At this rate, Courting may very well end up being almost twice as long as its predecessor. I ain’t mad about that. I don’t think everyone who has been looking forward to this book will be either.

I think it may be time to accept that I’m not a traditional outliner. I do need to take notes like nobody’s business because I will forget the neat little plot twists I had in store. Or I’ll forget some detail about my magic system I had intended to work in. Or whatever. I had all kinds of things planned for book three, but I didn’t write them down, so now I’m having to try and remember what they were. I’ve now started my notes file for book three now precisely because of this. But it’s just that, notes. It seems that a more free-form approach of just random bullet points in a Google doc works best for me.

The truth is, with only one completed long-form work under my belt, I’m still learning what exactly my process is. But I think that the moral of this story is you are NOT married to an outline (unless of course, you signed a contract stating that you are and you owe it to some big publishing house, then I’m both sorry for you and extremely jealous). If your outline isn’t working for you, throw it away. Start over. Get back in touch with who your characters are and the story they are trying to tell. Then write a new outline if you’re someone who needs the structure. Or don’t if you’re really a total pantser. But don’t stick with an outline you’ve come hate.

General Progress Update

I’m now very confident about getting the first(ish) draft of Courting finished this month. I had hoped to be done around the last weekend of January, but doing the editing on my first video book review turned out to be waaaay more time consuming than I anticipated, partly because I was trying to learn new software. To complicate things further, I’m now dealing with some hand and wrist issues that I’m hoping aren’t a big red flag for worse things yet to come. So that is slowing down my progress a bit from the rapid movement I was making before. Still, being well into revisions by the middle of February remains realistic, despite my hand and wrist pain. Fortunately, I revise on a printed draft, so that will give my left hand a nice break.

With that confidence about finishing the draft, I am now also ready to say that I am targeting a summer 2018 release for Courting the Dragon. I do have an exact date in mind, but I’m not quite ready to share it since these pain issues are cropping up and *cramping* my style (get it? get it?). As I get into revisions and get the second(ish) draft out to beta readers it will become more obvious whether or not that date is feasible. Start looking for an official launch announcement around March.


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Hot Tea & Tall Tales – 3- Soul Mates: An Unforgettable Summer

Posted on February 4th 2018 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

Hello everyone! It’s the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, so this week we’re doing a romance novel. This week’s review is of Soul Mates: An Unforgettable Summer by Rose Withering.

You can view the review video here.

About the Author

Rose is the municipal liason for the Akron regional group for National Novel Writing Month. She and her husband and active participants in the yearly challenge. They live in Northeast Ohio with their two cats, Athos and Achilles. You can find Rose on Facebook.


The book is available from Amazon. The ebook edition is 99 cents, and the paperback is $12.99. The Kindle edition is estimated at about 241 pages.

Design 2 teaspoons of tea leaves

Soul Mates Cover I like the cover. It isn’t a knock-you-down WOW cover, but it looks like the sort of cover I would expect for a sweet (read: no smutt) romance novel. The script font for the word “Soul” is a nice touch. I’m not crazy about the other font (the random slanted letters are weird to me), but there is a nice balance to it. The colors seem to be a bit washed out, but that’s not a big deal. I don’t see issues with consistency between the cover and the contents of the book. So, if this section were just the cover alone we’d be looking at 3, maybe 4 teaspoons.

But, we are not just looking at the cover. Things take a bit of left turn once you crack open the book.

To put it bluntly, the ebook formatting is a mess. It’s missing page breaks. There are line breaks in random places. The header for the Acknowledgements lost its styling somewhere along the way. At times the formatting problems were so distracting I actually had trouble concentrating on the story.


I spoke with the author about it, suspecting there may have been issues with the file that was uploaded. These issues may be resolved by the time this review is live.

The other thing on the inside that gets me is the treehouse picture just inside the cover. I actually really enjoy pictures and art in books I read. But rather than a gorgeous sketch of the house that Eddie lovingly designed, we get what looks like a stock clip-art image of a kid’s tree fort. Rather than adding to the romance of the book, this really distracts from it.

Two teaspoons.

Premise 3 teaspoons of tea leaves

The book description on Amazon is extremely brief. It reads more like a split second elevator pitch than a full book blurb, and really doesn’t give any insight to what sort of story the reader should expect.

My best attempt at summing up the premise would be this: a teenage ranch hand falls in love with the long-lost granddaughter of the woman who owns the ranch his family has worked on for three generations. Over the course of the summer, he works to protect her from her conniving uncle and prove his love. And there’s a treehouse.

There’s some nugget of interesting in this idea. At first blush there’s definitely some room for intrigue and action. So, despite the lack of clarity up front on the premise, it’s not a bad one. Three teaspoons.

Characters 2 teaspoons of tea leaves

Edward Goldman aka Eddie, is our main protagonist. Eddie is supposedly sixteen (and later eighteen), but it feels more like he’s twelve. Despite his attempts to “man-up” so to speak, Eddie really just comes off as childish.

Another major character is Nicole. She is the granddaughter of the ranch owner, Ms. Anne Morgan. I can’t quite figure Nicole out. At first, she acts convinced that everyone is lying to her and insists that the antagonist is her father. Then later she talks about her parents like she knew all along he wasn’t. She does have a pretty badass moment where she torches the bad guy’s house. It was definitely one of the more intense scenes in the book.

The main antagonist of the story is Anne’s son, Judd. He’s a nasty SOB, just like his father. Somebody really should have just shot the rat bastard early in the book and put us all out of his misery. In summary, he kidnapped his niece and tortured her for years, planning to eventually use her to get his mother’s ranch. Or something. Most of his time on camera in the first half is spent trying to shoot Eddie. Why Judd is the way he is doesn’t get explored much. His motivation is muddy at best.

These are just the main characters. There’s a whole host of side characters in the form of Eddie’s family. Honestly, I think the story would have fared better if the cast had been trimmed down significantly. All these names and their relation to the hero of the story are just noise. Uncle Eric is an extraneous character. He didn’t need to be there. Anything he might have done, Uncle Buck could have done. Billy seemed to be used to give Eddie a chance for exposition, and that also feels throw-away. I’m also not sure why Anne needed five sons. Two or three in opposition to each other would have been enough. Robert and Clint could have been combined into one character, as could Chester and Wade.

Characters get two teaspoons.

Worldbuilding 1 teaspoon of tea leaves

Seeing as this story is, presumably, set in the real world the act of worldbuilding lies more in grounding the reader in a time and place. Soul Mates fails at this is a big way for me.

When and where on Earth does this story take place? Apparently, the action is split between 1996 and 1998. This wasn’t immediately apparent to me since the “December 1998” heading from the Prologue was crammed onto the page before with the title, copyright, dedication, and acknowledgments. I was halfway through the book before I figured out what year it was. All I knew was that it was sometime after Henry Ford popularized the assembly line because there were several trucks.

The town’s name is Duncan, but where Duncan is, I’m not sure. It seems to have some laws that don’t feel quite reasonable in a modern era. Castle laws and stand-your-ground laws (statutes that allow you to shoot home invaders or someone who is attacking you) are still fairly common in the U.S., but they certainly are stricter than what this story depicts.

It seems like guns in general are a bit misrepresented in the story. The second scene where Judd tries and fails to shoot Eddie feels wildly inaccurate. And this is coming from someone who has actually shot a gun. Several of them, in fact. I don’t know the exact statistics, but unless Judd takes really crappy care of his gun and ammo that many misfires seem highly unlikely. Also, seems like Eddie sure recovered from not one, but two gun wounds awful fast.

Then there’s the shotgun. At one point in the story, Eddie claims to have a deadly aim with a shotgun. Having “deadly aim” with a shotgun made me chuckle. Part of the point of a shotgun (particularly in self-defense) is that you don’t really need to have great aim because the “shot” scatters. You just need to point the gun in mostly the right direction. This is why Joe Biden rather famously (and this was seen as somewhat of a gaffe as I recall) suggested double-barrel 12-gauge shotguns for home defense. At any rate, it would have made more sense for Eddie to take a rifle to the treehouse with him, especially since he took bullets and not shotgun shells.

If this seems nitpicky, it’s because things like this can jar a reader and make them doubt the feasibility of the rest of the story. The book blurb touts the story as being unbelievable, and these worldbuilding miscues make it that for all the wrong reasons.

Worldbuilding gets one teaspoon.

Plot  1 teaspoon of tea leaves

Okay, so it got off to a rocky start, but that premise was good, so how did that play out in the plot? All the best romances stories, in my opinion, have a great overarching plot and conflict that serve as the backdrop for the romance. The love story is an organic outcome of the circumstances facing the main characters.

That didn’t happen in Soul Mates. Eddie just falls in love with Nicole for absolutely no apparent reason at first sight right after she’s been beaten bloody and nearly to death. I guess I could see some protector instincts kicking in, but love? Seems a stretch. He then devotes himself to her, again for no apparent reason, and proceeds to spend several pages pining over her after she (initially) resoundingly rejects him. Nicole at least seems to have the sense to get to know someone before declaring undying love.

Things get even weirder after the two-year time jump back to 1998.

Then there’s Judd. Why on earth does Judd have so much clout? Why wouldn’t they ask for a trial in a neutral location if it’s known that the local judge is friendly to Judd? Both the federal and state courts in the US have procedures for this kind of thing. Where’s the District Attorney when all this is going down? Is it really the DA that Judd has in his pocket? How does a man that lives in a trash heap afford that kind of respect?

It feels like the story wants to be an old western in a mining town, but with the modern convenience of farm trucks. The story makes one leap in logic to the next. I found it very hard to follow. I’m still trying to figure out why the treehouse was safer than the ranch house, other than maybe Judd wouldn’t look there? I don’t know.

One teaspoon for the plot.

Writing  2 teaspoons of tea leaves

There was some good and some bad here. There are moments of evocative imagery such as “In the summer, the trees would be laden with fruit and they would scent the air with a sweet fragrance; but now, the trees were bare and the only smell that filled the air was the stench of manure from cows in the pasture.”

There were definitely a few miscues. I honestly spent probably the first eight chapters trying to figure out what was going on in this story. The prologue seemed to be trying to make use of a framing technique that shows a bit of the future, then jumps back in time for the start of chapter one. I do enjoy this framing technique, but the book doesn’t indicate that time jump well. I think the story would have been stronger either without that prologue. It didn’t really add anything for the reader, in my opinion. I’m not normally a fan of exposition-y prologues, but I think even that would have been better, considering the struggle I had figuring out who was who and what the heck they had to do with the ranch.

The first part of the story that mostly told from Eddie’s first-person point of view also seems like a miss to me. I feel like this was not the best choice of narrating voice for this story. It’s not that a romance can’t be told from a young man’s first-person perspective, it’s just that there’s so much information that the reader might have benefited from that would have better been explained outside of Eddie’s head and his maturity level does not add to the believability of the story as a romance.

Overall 2 teaspoons of tea leaves

I have to give Soul Mates: An Unforgettable Summer an overall rating of two teaspoons.

I really, really wanted to like this book. Partly because I wanted to have a glowing romance recommendation for Valentine’s Day, and partly because I do consider Rose a friend. But I just couldn’t. There were too many things for me to overlook, even when taking the struggle of independent publishing into account. I think Rose has a lot of potential, and I look forward to reading her work again in the future. I think she has so much room to grow and blossom.

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Hot Tea & Tall Tales – 2
Heirs of Eternity

Posted on February 3rd 2018 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews


This week’s review is of Heirs of Eternity, by Franc Ingram. This is the first of two books in the Euphoria Duology. The second book, Kings of Euphoria, was released earlier this month. A full review of it is upcoming in this video/blog series.

View the video review here.

Disclaimers & Disclosures

Full disclosure, I am personally acquainted with the author. We are in both in the AkroNaNoWrimo group for National Novel Writing Month and Facebook friends. This does not influence my opinions on the book, and I am receiving no compensation for this review, except maybe some free press. I say that assuming I’ll get linked from her blog. You will link me, won’t you, Franc? Pretty please?

About the Author

Franc is a local author from North East Ohio. She like good food, white wine, and has a dog named Mya. You can find her on Facebook, Goodreads, and her blog.

Book Details

First, how does this book only have two reviews on Amazon? I know more than two people have read this book. Only one review of the paperback on Barnes & Noble at this time of this writing.

Heirs of Eternity is available for sale in paperback ($10.90) on both Amazon and BN.com. It is available as an ebook for Kindle ($2.99, which is what I paid).

Amazon estimates the length of this book at 282 pages for the Kindle edition. The print edition weighs in at 279 pages.


Design  3 teaspoons of tea leaves

I want to preface this section by saying that putting together an indie book is hard. Everything is done by the author or at the author’s expense. And unless you really love that sort of thing, typesetting and layout a print book is a chore. I’ve done it myself. It’s even worse when you don’t have the right software. So keep that in mind.

I have mixed feelings about this cover. The art has this dreamy quality that is enticing, but to be honest, I don’t think it fits the story. This book is jam-packed with action and monsters and heroes and cool SciFi stuff that borders on magic… But that just does not come across on this cover for me. Now, what it does have going for it, for those of you who watched/read my last review and know my pet peeve, is that it leaves the characters completely up to the readers’ imaginations.

It’s like, I don’t hate it, but I don’t think it’s strong or eye-catching for its genre. I think if I didn’t know Franc and know the book was out there, I probably would not have found this in the vast, vast world that is Amazon’s Kindle Store.

The interior design of the book isn’t great. It’s left aligned. The headings are nothing special, just bolded. It’s kind of like reading somebody’s term paper from a design standpoint. It doesn’t take away from your ability to read the book, but it doesn’t add anything either.

What I DO like about the interior is the spacer used between scene shifts within a chapter. The cool little pop of binary makes my nerd heart sing. For the enquiring minds that want to know, the little 100101 sequence seems to come out to a % in ASCII.

Premise4 teaspoons of tea leaves

The story has a cool sci-fi fantasy premise. The science is kind of so far gone that it enters the realm of magic. To the average person who doesn’t understand, what the heirs can do really does seems like magic. The Masters of Earth, Skies, and Animals all have these powers that stem from being part supercomputer. I really the like idea behind the Heirs and the three kings with Oleana as their mentor. Where I struggle a bit is with the “ultras” the first generation hybrids mentioned in the blurb. Something about them just rubs me wrong, so that keeps premise from five teaspoons for me.

Characters 4 teaspoons of tea leaves

This story is extremely character driven. Oleana is a such a flawed character. And beautifully so. She’s a strong, but broken character, and that’s really what sells the story for me. She’s bearing the weight of the memory of their failures alone, and the memory of watching the other heirs die, repeatedly, just beats on her psyche. She struggles against addiction and the need to complete the job she’s been given.

Lorn, Lysander, and Leith are the other heirs. They didn’t come off as strong in this book for me, but I think book two is where they’re really going to come in to their own. I will be doing a review of it.

The other major character I want to talk about is the main villain, Cornelius. I’m sorry, Franc. That name just makes me chuckle so much, because all I can think about is the fairyprince from Warner Bros 1994 animated film, Thumelina. He’s supposed to be this big, bad ice-demi-god kind of thing, and all I see in my head is autumn fairyprince. To be fair, I’m probably the only person who makes that association, but it’s just hilarious to me. That aside, Cornelius doesn’t have much of a character arc. He’s a pretty typical maniacal all around bad guy who is drunk on power and wants to keep that power for himself. He sees the Heirs as a serious threat to that power.

So that’s the big conflicts of the story, Oleana against herself and Oleana against Cornelius. The two of them are diametrically opposed to one another.

There’s a lot of other characters in the book. The cast is quite wide. But we would be here all day if I tried to get into them all.

Worldbuilding 4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Once again, being scif-fi, worldbuilding is so important to the story. And the world is huge. Franc built a lot of world! It’s got different cultures, and you can see it in the places that the main characters travel to, and when they encounter the Failsea warriors. It’s a culturally rich book, which I enjoy. Again, the Ultras just kind of bug me, and that keeps it from being a perfect five for me. All in all, it’s a strong world, and I look forward to seeing it develop further in the second book.

Plot 4 teaspoons of tea leaves

It does have a twist at the end I didn’t see coming, so that was nice. It’s a pretty typical high-action adventure type plot with a journey. The plot really isn’t anything special, but events develop logically and it’s well paced.

Writing 5 teaspoons of tea leaves

The writing in this book is strong. It’s descriptive and emotive where it needs to be. Oleana’s struggles are well portrayed.

Final Thoughts – Overall 4 teaspoons of tea leaves

It was a strong story. I recommend it for fans of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. If you’re looking for hard sci-fi, probably not the book for you. I think if a second edition was released with a little more professional polish, the book would hit a solid five teaspoons for me.

If you are an indie or small press author and are interested in being featured in my reviews, please contact me at reviews@sara-cleveland.com with a subject line of “Hot Tea & Tall Tales Inquiry.” The subject line helps with inbox rules so I see your email faster.

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